How much does the Big Ten Tournament matter? As the conference’s fifth postseason tournament begins in two days at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, coaches, players and members of the NCAA selection committee are aware that what transpires at the Big Ten Tournament will have more impact on the NCAA Tournament than ever before.

Paul Wong
Michigan State guard Marcus Taylor earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career by averaging 33 points per game last week. (AP PHOTO)

“I think this year there’s more to play for,” Illinois coach Bill Self said. “This year will be totally different. We need to keep the momentum going. Last year there was more to lose; this year there’s more to gain.”

Late surges have put teams like Self’s Illinois squad and Michigan State back on track after sub-par starts, and the result is a four-way tie atop the Big Ten standings between Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio State, with the Spartans just a game behind them all. The last time there was a four-way tie in the Big Ten was in 1926, when Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan shared the honor.

That makes the job of the NCAA selection committee a bit more difficult than it would have been had Michigan State and Illinois – regular season co-champions last season -trailed off midseason and then never returned. Now it looks like there are five Big Ten teams assured of a bid to the Big Dance, and possibly a sixth -Minnesota – should it advance far in Indianapolis.

The Big Ten hasn’t seen this sort of parity in years, certainly not since the conference began its postseason tournament in 1998. Four regular season co-champions now have to represent themselves particularly well in the Big Ten Tournament to assure themselves a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“Depending on how things play out in other leagues, I think we should be a five or better now, with maybe a chance to be a two. You’d probably have to run the table to do that though,” said Self of his own team’s status, which mirrors that of the Illini’s Big Ten peers.

There is also the always important matter of bragging rights.

“We’ve got to determine who the best team is,” Self said.

On the mark: Michigan State guard Marcus Taylor was named this week’s Big Ten Player of the Week after his 32 and 34 point performances against Ohio State and Iowa, respectively. He shot a combined 8-of-12 from behind the 3-point line in the two games and managed to climb five spots to the top of the conference leaderboard for scoring. He became just the second player ever to lead the Big Ten in scoring (17.7 points per game) and assists (5.0 assists per game). The first was Iowa’s Andre Woolridge in 1997.

His play is the primary reason why the Spartans have won five straight games to put themselves in position for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“When your best players play well, that makes a big difference,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of Taylor’s impact.

Who gets a vote?: Don’t count Michigan out of the NCAA Tournament just yet. Michigan (5-11 Big Ten, 10-17 overall) somehow earned eight votes in this week’s AP poll. That places the Wolverines ahead of such expected Tournament participants as N.C. State, Memphis and Missouri.

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